– Fiction by Christine Brennan –
“Nice deep breaths, Mrs. Crandall. In through your nose, out through your mouth…”
Helen Crandall was becoming more aware. She was flat on her back, with an incredible pain in her backside. A youthful voice was urging her to open her eyes — and she was trying to — but she couldn’t. She felt like she was suspended in a swimming pool of molasses.
Soft beeps and chimes in the background.
“Your procedure’s all done. You’re in the recovery room. Don’t forget to breathe, Mrs. Crandall. ”
A minute passed. Or an hour. Eventually, Helen opened her eyes to a smiling young thing wearing light blue scrubs. Just moments ago she had closed her eyes on an older blonde woman in a surgical mask.
“The surgery’s over?” She thought she might be slurring. Her mouth was so dry.
“Yes, all finished. You’ve been with me for about 15 minutes. You’re just waking up.”
Chime, chime, beep. One bell in particular kept sounding.
“Remember to take nice deep breaths. That sound means your oxygen level is dropping a bit. That’s normal — it’s from the anesthesia. When you hear it, take a nice deep breath.”
The nurse’s voice was pleasant but flat. Monotone. Helen concentrated on filling her lungs with air, as directed.
“Everything went well? It’s so embarrassing, needing surgery for a hemorrhoid.”
The girl moved efficiently around the bed, untangling cords and smoothing sheets. “Nothing embarrassing about it. We do them all the time. How’s your pain?”
Helen opened her mouth to say actually it wasn’t too bad when a searing pain in her bottom arced up into her lower back. She gasped.
“Bad?” The nurse pressed some buttons on the monitor above Helen’s head. “Can you rate it on a scale of 0-10, with zero being no pain and 10 being the worst pain you’ve ever had?”
How many times have you asked that today? Helen thought hazily. What a nice robot you are. “It’s an eight I guess.”
“I’ll get you some pain medicine.”
Helen’s head swam. The nurse was barely gone before she was back with a syringe and a small vial. She inserted the needle into the vial and drew up a tiny amount of liquid.
“That little bit is going to help?”
“This is fentanyl. It’s a powerful narcotic. Let’s see how you feel in a few minutes.”
A warmth enveloped her, so much so that she wondered if she’d urinated onto herself. She didn’t want to call attention to it if she did. She watched the girl’s expression to see if she noticed anything down there. She didn’t seem to. The pain ebbed.
Bing, bing, chime. Helen inhaled deeply.
“Good,” the nurse said approvingly, glancing at the monitor.
Again, lost time. “I can’t believe it’s all done. It went well? I’m sorry if I’m repeating myself.”
“Don’t worry. That happens. It’s a typical side effect of the anesthesia. That’s why we always ask you to bring someone with you, to listen to the discharge instructions and take you home. Who’s here with you today?”
“My sister-in-law, Barbara. She’s really more like a sister. Best thing my brother ever did.”
The nurse smiled. She tapped away on the keyboard of her computer on wheels.
Helen could feel her head nodding and she gave in to a twilight sort of sleep. When she awoke a few minutes later — she presumed it was a few minutes later — she felt more alert. More compos mentis. The bell wasn’t ringing anymore, which must be good. She took several deep breaths. Didn’t want to slide backwards.
She squinted at the badge on the nurse’s chest but it was blurred and she couldn’t make out the name. “Has Dr. Baird come in to see me yet? Since the surgery?”
Not yet. He usually waits until people are a bit more awake. He should be in shortly.”
“He’s such a nice man.”
“He is. Very nice.”
Helen gazed at the girl. She was thin and glossy, like a page from Vogue.
“He did my other surgery. Well, I’ve had a few surgeries in the past few years. But he took my gallbladder out.” She gave the nurse a sly look. “Is he married?”
The girl laughed. “He is, actually. Married. With four kids. They had the last one pretty late.”
“Oh well.” Helen sighed. “Any other doctors my age single? I’d like to date someone.”
“What’s your type?”
“Oh… just a nice guy, really,” Helen said. “That’s all I’m really looking for at this point in my life. My husband died five years ago.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. That must be difficult.” Tap, tap, tap on the keyboard.
“It was. We were married nearly 30 years. Then, out of the blue, he started seeing other women.” Even as she spoke, Helen felt embarrassed. She knew the nurse probably had to deal with this all the time: drugged-up patients inappropriately sharing personal information. But she couldn’t stop talking. “After a while, I couldn’t take it anymore. A year or so after the divorce, though, he was diagnosed with dementia. Early onset. None of his lady friends wanted to stay around for that. What could I do? I let him move back in. One morning, he came to me in the kitchen and said he was going outside and would be right back. And he walked out the door
and into the pool and drowned.”
Helen saw the professional mask slip. Shock registered on the nurse’s face.
“Oh my gosh, Mrs. Crandall! I’m so sorry. That’s a terrible thing.”
“Yes, well. ” Helen tried to reposition herself again and she felt as though she was cleaved in two. “God Almighty, if I’d known having a hemorrhoid taken out was going to be this painful I would have just left the damn thing alone.”
“What’s your pain on a scale of zero to…”
Helen couldn’t wait for the entire question to be asked. “A nine,” she gasped. “I’m sorry to cut you off, dear. It’s a nine.”
The nurse inserted the syringe into the IV in Helen’s wrist and once again the pleasant sensation spread over her. Her head felt detached from her body. She could feel the pain in her bottom, but also distance herself from it too. Like it was there but not a part of her.
The nurse’s voice floated into her ears. “What number would you give your pain now, Mrs. Crandall?”
“A five now.”
“Good, much better.”
There was activity at the foot of the bed as the surgeon approached. Good looking man. She tried to produce a saucy smile — so what if he was married? — but it must have come across as a grimace.
“Hello, Helen. Hurting pretty bad, I see.”
“Hanging in there.” She tried to sound cheerful. She didn’t want him to think he’d failed her in some way, because it was so painful.
He spoke in low tones to the nurse. Helen heard her tell him the amount of fentanyl she’d given. He took a seat in the folding chair next to the bed, rested her chart on his leg.
“So, Helen. The surgery went well. We were able to get the hemorrhoid in total. So that was good”
“Good.” Helen attempted another smile. She wondered if she still had any make-up left on.
“Unfortunately, the reason it wasn’t healing on its own was because there was a fairly large mass underneath it. We took biopsies and we’ll have the results mid-week. But, I’ve been doing this a long time, and my guess is it’s cancer.”
A roaring rose in her ears — her blood pressure? — and began to drown him out. She struggled to hear over the din. Phrases and words slipped through. “Treatment” and ”rectal versus anal”.
“… generally speaking, is to remove the rectum. You’d get a permanent bag.”
She found her voice. “A bag?”
“A colostomy bag,” he said. “But if it’s an anal cancer, well, that’s usually a squamous cell cancer. Very treatable and curable with chemotherapy and radiation. Given the discomfort of radiation, however, they still prefer for you to have a temporary bag during the treatment. You don’t want to be dealing with feces there during the treatment. It’s an infection waiting to
She stared at him.
He put his hand over hers. “Helen, my wife reminds me all the time that I’m not always right. And I hope I’m wrong in this case. But I’m pretty sure this is what we’re dealing with. So, depending on what kind of cancer it is, that will determine the treatment.”
He crossed his legs and looked at her for some time. “Do you have any questions at this point?”
Bing. Bing. BING.
Helen didn’t realize she’d been holding her breath. She inhaled deeply. “This isn’t … I wasn’t expecting this.”
“No. Of course not. I was surprised myself, honestly. It didn’t have that appearance from the outside.”
“Anal cancer… Isn’t that what Farrah Fawcett died of?”
“Farrah Fawcett? I’m not sure…”
“Yes, I think it was. It’s basically sexually transmitted, isn’t it?” Her brain struggled to make connections through the drugs. “From that virus. It begins with an ‘H’… not HIV …”
“HPV,” the surgeon said. “Human papilloma virus. Yes, well, they do think now that most anal cancers are caused by HPV. But,” he frowned. “I wouldn’t think that’s something that you …”
“You son of a bitch.”
The doctor raised an eyebrow.
“Not you,” Helen said. “Him. All those women.”
“Oh.” He frowned again and looked down at the chart. “Well, as I said, the first step is to confirm that we’re dealing with a malignancy. Then, we’ll figure out the treatment.”
He waited a while longer and, when she didn’t say anything more, he patted Helen’s leg and stood. He spoke quietly again to the nurse and was gone.
A bitterness filled Helen’s mouth and her stomach soured. She closed her eyes and swallowed, trying to quell the nausea.
“Mrs. Crandall? Are you all right?”
Helen didn’t open her eyes. She tried to sound upbeat but her voice shook when she answered. “You know how they call these the golden years? Well, my dear, that is a load of bullshit. It’s a lot of doctors and death, is what it is.”
The blankets were pulled back abruptly. Helen opened her eyes and the nurse’s face filled her entire field of vision. She had clear, cerulean eyes that were made even bluer set against her pale skin and dark hair. Her expression was so fierce, so intense, that Helen nearly forgot about the pain and the conversation with the doctor.
She grasped both of Helen’s hands in her own.
“You have fought battles before. This is just that: a battle,” the nurse said, with the ferocity of youth and everything that had not yet happened to her. “Breathe. Don’t forget to breathe.” Her vitality flooded into Helen like an electric current. Helen squeezed back.
About the Author – Christine Brennan
Christine Brennan is happily exploring her third career as a registered nurse. This is her first published short story. She holds degrees in Journalism from Rider University in New Jersey and in nursing from Duke University in North Carolina. Christine lives on a small island in the Chesapeake Bay with her husband, two bird dogs and several laying hens.
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